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Md. health exchange extends coronavirus sign-up period as thousands enroll

Michele Eberle, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange. (André Chung)

Michele Eberle, executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.
(File photo)

Thousands of Marylanders are signing up for health insurance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the state’s health exchange Wednesday extended the window to allow more people to enroll.

The state’s special enrollment period for the coronavirus will now run through June 15, not April 15 as previously planned. More than 10,000 people have enrolled in coverage as part of the window, said Michele Eberle, the executive director of the Maryland Health Benefit Exchange.

“We’ve had enormous amounts of people enrolling,” she said. “In light of the fact that we know we have not reached the peak yet, and we know that our governor is doing such a phenomenal job being proactive, we worked with the carrier partners and we all agreed that we really should extend this special enrollment period.”

More than half of the people who have enrolled during this period have signed up for Medicaid coverage while 43% have enrolled in private coverage.

Typically people can only sign up for individual health insurance through the exchange during the annual open enrollment period. People who are eligible for Medicaid or have recently lost their insurance — for reasons that including lost jobs and aging out of parents’ coverage — can sign up at any time.

The open enrollment period for 2020 coverage was Nov. 1, 2019, through Dec. 15, 2019, well before coronavirus was a concern. At the end of that period about 158,600 people had signed up for individual coverage. About 6% of the state’s population does not have health insurance.

While the number of people signing up for coverage in Maryland grew 1% during that period, there were declines in some key groups, like young adults age 18-34.

That group can be valuable for insurance pools because its members are typically healthier and less likely to have high-cost claims. The pandemic appears to have changed their mind, and they make up 44% of the new enrollments in private insurance.

“In open enrollment we are always trying to encourage people under 34 to get health insurance,” Eberle said. The exchange tries to tell these people they can never know what might happen, and “nothing is bringing that home greater than this pandemic.”

Maryland can offer this special enrollment period because the state runs its own health insurance marketplace. In states that chose to use the federal exchange, similar enrollment periods have not been allowed.

Not all people signing up for coverage now are doing it proactively. Unemployment claims in Maryland have skyrocketed and people are likely losing insurance along with their jobs.

Often when people lose employer coverage they can buy COBRA insurance coverage. Eberle is encouraging those people to check their options on the exchange as well because they may be eligible for Medicaid or subsidies and will find different coverage options. 

Once someone has decided to sign up for COBRA coverage, they cannot buy on the exchange until that coverage is exhausted.

“What’s important to know is that before they sign up to anything is to compare what their benefit and the cost would be under COBRA versus what their benefit and cost would be through the exchange,” she said.

The number of people signing up for coverage through the special enrollment period for the coronavirus also does not include people who have signed up through another special enrollment period for people who checked a box on their state tax return to learn more about health insurance coverage.

More than 30,000 people checked that box and more than 1,000 people have signed up for coverage through that information, Eberle said.

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